Iraq to release 2,500 detainees: asserting sovereignty?

Various news outlets are reporting today that Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki announced the impending release of 2,500 detainees, reportedly from both Iraqi and American facilities. This is a fascinating — and risky, due to potential recidivism — move from the new prime minister, who hasn’t even appointed Ministers of Defense or Interior (police forces) yet.

The most interesting thing to me is that none of the initial articles have quotes from U.S. officials. Nothing. I have a hard time believing that Maliki would surprise the U.S. with something like this, but regardless of how it came about, I would guess that the U.S. military leadership is livid. The military tends not to be happy when thousands of people who they believe were part of the insurgency, trying to kill Coalition troops, are released by somebody else.

It will also be interesting to see who they let go. I imagine the (Shia-controlled) government will release Sunnis to try to mollify some of the popular Sunni support for the insurgency. But if it ends up being a move to free some of the Shia who have attacked Sunnis, Sunni reaction could be explosive. With attacks already at historic highs, perhaps Iraqi leadership thought it was worth the risk of recidivism (if the detainees were criminals to begin with) to see if this kind of olive branch will help calm the sectarian violence.

I also am very curious to hear U.S. reaction. Did American political and/or military leadership have a role in this? Does the Iraqi government now have control over detainees in U.S. custody? And regarding the media itself, how do you release a story like this without getting quotes on these issues? The whole thing raises many questions.

Finally, on a semi-related note, I had some experience with detainees in Iraq. It was very limited, but I can say with confidence that there are many, many detainees who just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. This is partly the result of bureaucratic breakdowns and poor guidance from the top, among other things, but if those are the people being released, justice is being done. If not, however, this could result in a surge in violence — either because the detainees are actually insurgents or criminals or simply because it’ll increase sectarian tensions. Either way, I think it will further drive a wedge between Iraq’s government and U.S. political and military leaders.

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